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Undervalued nurses set to walk in droves

National survey paints bleak picture of nurse dissatisfaction. By Linda Belardi.

The nursing workforce is facing a staff turnover crisis with 15 per cent of nurses saying they will leave the profession within a year, the first national survey of nurses’ workplace attitudes has found.

The survey by three Monash University researchers, Associate Professor Peter Holland, Dr Brian Cooper and Dr Belinda Allen from the Department of Management, said that figure jumped to 38 per cent when nurses were unhappy with their conditions and benefits.

While pay did not figure as the top issue for nurses, feeling valued and listened to by employers contributed most significantly to job satisfaction.

“Governments and employers still see these workers as costs rather than an asset,” said Holland.

“And it’s an attitude that is currently being played out in the Victorian nurses’ dispute.

“What we are seeing in Victoria is a low-quality cost-cutting approach, where the government is attempting to cut the budget by $104 million by replacing nurses with semi-skilled workers or health assistants.”

Leaked cabinet documents revealed that the Ballieu government had considered a plan in May to achieve budget savings by having assistants, rather than nurses, carry out “low end” tasks.

Holland said Victoria’s unique nurse patient-ratios also appeared to promote workforce retention.

When the ratios were reintroduced by the Bracks Labor government following a Kennett defeat, they actually encouraged nurses to return to the workforce.

“The indications are in Victoria that if you change these patient ratios and make them less flexible for employees, then the state might have this exodus again.”

Holland said a common theme throughout the survey was that nurses felt undervalued and that management didn’t consult them enough. They felt management were making decisions on specific areas with no knowledge or training in that area.

“It’s about changing the mind-set of employers to start recognising and rewarding their staff.
These things aren’t hard to turn around but require a cultural change in employers,” he said.

Nurses also frequently cited unmanageable workloads due to a shortage of staff as the main cause for their high stress levels. The results showed nurses felt they were unable to provide the highest quality of care due to high patient loads and inadequate staffing.

As national registration makes nurses highly mobile workers, states also risk losing them to other areas in Australia with better conditions and pay.

Compared with the national average, the nursing workforce has a four-fold increase in expected turnover and it’s mainly the younger nurses who are saying they intend to leave.

“Four per cent turnover is normal; if you have 10 per cent that’s a significant problem. At 15 per cent turnover, it’s a crisis. This means the whole nursing workforce will turn over in five years,”

Holland said. He said nurses have a strong skill level and were willing to change careers if they felt undervalued. “There is a perception that once nurses become nurses they stay nurses and I don’t think in this day and age you can make that assumption.” He said it was typical for modern workers to have up to seven different careers in their lifetime.

Chronic turnover coupled with shortages in particular nursing specialities and a younger workforce that is not prepared to stay has created a perfect storm.“What we are seeing is a whittling away of the core workforce - young people intending to leave and older workers wanting to work less and less hard. There is a real concern in the next five years that the profession is going to have a very small core workforce.

“We think alarm bells should be ringing.”

The online survey which was open for three months is the first survey of nurses’ attitudes to their work and their workplace.

Representing the views of 640 nurses Australia-wide, the findings can be considered to be typical of the whole workforce, Holland said. He and his colleagues released preliminary analysis of the data in November but a final report will be available from mid to late February.

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